Rise and Fall
“There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Adam Smith
For a glorious, albeit extended moment, it seems as if the Vijayan good times had returned. Dutugemunu's nature, clear from his early childhood, was naturally geared to dominate, take control, and direct. Not for nothing does island history remember him as “the great”.
Certainly, his victory in 161 BCE left him ruling nearly the whole of the island – more territory by far than even that of the great king, Pandu Kabhaya.
And as if to confirm the return of Vijayan order, the construction of more buildings commenced. Anuradhapura expanded exponentially, its infrastructure, utilities, water resources so upgraded as to ensure that it would flourish for centuries to come, the longest surviving capital city of the Indian sub-continent.
Still more spectacular was the building of many of its most celebrated structures. A large monastery, the Maricavatti, was erected, together with a nine-story chapter house for monks, with a bright copper-tiled roof; and most famous of all, what is today called the Ruwanweliseya, the Great Stupa which housed Buddha’s begging bowl. The building programme was not restricted to the capital alone – 89 other temples are said to have been constructed, along with hospitals and smaller tanks. Trade opened up with the west, the ports busy with merchants from Arabia, Persia and possibly even Rome.
But back at the palace, events were going less smoothly. Dutugemunu's heir, Saliya, having fallen for a girl from one of the lowest castes, was disinherited. The ailing king, dying before his eye-catching Stupa was finished, ensured the throne passed instead to his own brother, Saddha Tissa in 137 BCE.
For the next 33 years it seemed as if life had got back to normal, or to whatever passed for normal amidst the seemingly indestructible building and gardens of Anuradhapura.
King Saddha Tissa busied himself building the obligatory new monastery and, more usefully, a tremendous water tank, the Duratissa Reservoir which held 336 million cubic feet of water.
But as the late British prime minister Harold Macmillan remarked on the unpredictability of politics, the sudden appearance of “events, dear boy, events,” was to unseat everything.
Saddha Tissa’s death, 18 years later in 119 BCE, set off a power struggle, with his son, Thulatthana, taking the throne – though not for long. It also fired the gun to start the dynasty’s race towards its next great disaster, just 15 years later.
Thulatthana's coronation was a crowing too soon. He was not, in all probability, the next legitimate heir, that honour going to his older brother, Lanja Tissa. But Lanja Tissa was busy far south of Anuradhapura, in Ruhuna, and so not on site to determine the right order of succession.
Inevitably, war broke out – albeit briefly. Thulatthana was defeated and killed and for the rest of 119 BCE to 109 BCE, Lanja Tissa ruled the kingdom, with, no doubt, much justified satisfaction.
His death, ten years later, brought his brother, another son of King Saddha Tissa to the throne, Khallata Naga.
Khallata Naga’s inheritance was much impoverished by the events of the past years. Something was broken within the kingdom – some abiding sense of order and law. The palace coup and murder around king Thulatthana had shunted the state back to how it was in 205 BCE, when the luckless king Asela was killed, having been unable to repair the damage reaped on the kingdom by his more careless rulers.
And just now, it was all to depressingly similar. Dynastic self-harm had normalized treason, regicide, and rebellion. The state was unstable. And ungovernable.
Inevitably therefore, Khallata Naga found himself busy quelling rebellions – but to no avail. Killed by his own chief general in 103 BCE, another messy power struggle broke out before Valagamba – yet another son of King Saddha Tissa – took the throne in 103 BCE by killing the general and – in an act of reckless trust - adopted the general’s son and marrying his wife.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.